THE EDITOR’S DESK :: Bottle vs Tap – A Tale of 3 Beers

by Harvey Gold on January 16, 2012

Conventional wisdom tells us that a properly drawn brew is pretty much always preferable to the same concoction poured from a bottle. I get it, there are reasons why, based on how carbonation works for tapped beer and what may or may not be added to the recipe to achieve the desired bubbles in a bottle, one might feel that way. I also appreciate arguments that beer conditioned bottling can create an altogether different game. But rather than waste your time here on the concepts and practices, I defer to a wonderful entry from our friends at “Thank Heaven for Beer” that discusses the issue beautifully.

I started this all based on going to a favorite watering hole the other night to try a freshly tapped pint of Bells Double Cream Stout, knowing we had a bottle of it in the YBN fridge—the plan to compare them as best as I could, if not side-by-side.

From the tap, I found it to be very creamy, balanced, tasty. To be honest, in this case, calling it balanced might be saying it was, outside of the wonderful mouthfeel, nondescript.

Pouring at home, I was able to get some nose and flavor notes off the Bells from the bottle immediately, as opposed to what may or may not have passed/escaped as I waited for the bar-drawn beer to make it to the table. One might complain this makes for unfair comparison, but this is, to be sure, one of the differences between having the bottle in hand and having beer drawn at a bar if you’re not sitting directly in front of the tap it came from. But hey, get over it. This is part of the drinking experience, thus part of the evaluation process, so complain away if you must, but leave me out of it.

Not much of a head to speak of either way it arrived. But from the bottle as it poured into the glass, I detected a brief but stunningly sweet hop floral nose. No real nose to speak of by the time it made it from the keg to my table. In favor of the draw, it was much creamier in mouthfeel. One might think that should be expected but as we go along here we’ll see that this just ain’t necessarily so. So on balance, it was a quality I enjoyed far more from the tap.

I was able to detect more flavor notes and movement from the bottled version. The first half offered up a flavor I sometimes get from stout, a grainy, cereal note. I didn’t get this from the tap, that version a smoother ride overall. Hard to compare in this respect as the last Guiness I had — from a tap — also had this characteristic. This may suggest a consistency conversation is in order—note taken, but not on my detective docket this time around. As the session moved along, the stout warming a bit, this note evaporated leaving a nicely sweet, smooth flavor with a good weight and texture, apart from many stouts we’ve been tasting heavily weighted with coffee and/or big dark chocolate malts to the point of even feeling the grit of the cocoa and grounds. Not a bad thing by any means, but this one was true in so many ways to it’s name, Bells Double Cream Stout. At the end, sweet malt flowers to the nose, sweet creamy malt flavor to the tongue. It gets a respectful nod on tap, an enthusiastic thumbs up from the bottle.

One of the elements of tapping a keg is the use of nitrogen to move the brew through the lines. One could argue that this alone might explain why the Bells from the tap was creamier than the bottle. Very likely true. My experience with Boddington’s Pub Ale was the opposite. I first tried it from a Nitro Can, and found it to be the creamiest beverage I’ve had, short of an actual milkshake. The gently sweet wheat flavor of the beer went perfectly with this heavenly mouthfeel. Drinking it alone was great. With my meal, it still made me blink and smile at every sip. What a revelation this was!! So you can imagine how excited I was to try it from the tap. Much to my chagrin, I found it to be boring. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad beer, but based on what came out of that can and my expectations for a fresh draw, it was a profound disappointment. The mouthfeel had no relation to what came from the can, so what was mildly sweet before, represented as just a weak flavor profile from the tap. Now, I DO buy the cans and I LOVE drinking it poured from them, but that’s it…and really, it’s so good that way, if that’s how it’s to be, that’s more than enough for me.

Finally, Breckenridge Vanilla Porter. I fell for this a long time ago, writing about how it’s red vanilla bean sweetness bloomed deliciously when paired with salty and savory foods. My experience with this on tap leads us somewhere else. I finally had the opportunity to get a drawn pint of this favorite of mine and as I sipped it I got a keen and unwelcome metallic taste and aftertaste on my tongue, bittering this heavenly brew from beginning to end. This brings us to the art of the tap. There is much weight to be given to the proper care and maintenance of lines and tapping equipment in general. I know little to nothing about it, other than it’s very critical, and I suspect, as both the tapped Boddington’s and the Breckenridge I write about above came from the same pub, we may have a completely different reason or reasons for experiencing what I did with one or both of these beverages on tap. So, I will certainly try them again, hoping for better outcomes, but these are my tales of the bottle and tap for today. Cheers.

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